Today’s episode is a special one. A few weeks ago I had the wonderful opportunity to fill in on the Strange By Nature podcast, and I’m cross-posting that episode here.
Nature is amazing, and often a bit strange. And Strange By Nature presents curated stories of the weird and unbelievable side of nature.
Kirk, Rachel, and Victoria, the hosts of Strange By Nature, are a ton of fun, and it shows in their production. In this episode, we cover such diverse topics as the demon core, poisonous birds, and nature’s genetic engineers.
So be sure to check out their podcast on any podcast app, on their website, and on twitter.
And the more traditional Nature’s Archive episodes will be back in two weeks! We have topics ranging from bats to snowflakes to landscape-scale connectivity coming soon!
And one more thing. Nature’s Archive and Jumpstart Nature are starting work on a new podcast concept, and we need your help!
We’re looking for stories about people who have had a sudden and unexpected connection with nature.
In particular, we’d like to hear about turning points, where someone was disconnected from nature – perhaps ignoring it, unaware, or simply taking it for granted. But then there was an event that suddenly opened their eyes.
Perhaps it was a wildlife encounter, a career change, a health event, or meeting a particularly charismatic nature advocate.
Whatever it was, we’d like to hear about these “a ha” moments that caused people to shift and become nature advocates.
Maybe it is your story. Or maybe you’d like to connect us to someone you know. If you can help, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with a summary of the story. We’ll read every submission, and we may be in touch to interview you! Thank you!
Did you have a question that I didn’t ask? Let me know at email@example.com, and I’ll try to get an answer! I’ll add these Q&As to my monthly newsletter, so if you aren’t already subscribed, go here. I promise, no spam. I share the latest news from the world of Nature’s Archive, as well as pointers to new naturalist finds that have crossed my radar, like podcasts, books, websites, and more.
While you are welcome to listen to my show using the above link, you can help me grow my reach by listening through one of the podcast services (Apple, Google, Spotify, etc) linked on the right. And while you’re there, will you please consider subscribing?
Links To Topics Discussed
Books, Podcasts, and Webinars
Note: links to books are affiliate links
Book: Russo’s Western Galls book
Webinar: Plant Galls for the Curious Naturalist – Presented by Dr. Merav Vonshak and Michael Hawk
Webinar: Finding and Appreciating Bay Area Plant Galls – Presented by Dr. Merav Vonshak and Michael Hawk
Podcast: Dr. Doug Tallamy discussed incredible oak trees – Episode #26
Podcast: Adam Kranz discussed plant galls – Episode #29
The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Spellbound by Brian Holtz Music
Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/9616-spellbound
License (CC BY 4.0): https://filmmusic.io/standard-license
Artist website: https://brianholtzmusic.com
Transcripts are automatically created, and are about 95% accurate. Apologies for any errors.
[00:00:00] Michael: Hi everyone, this is Michael Hawk. I hope your new year is off to an amazing start. So today’s episode, it’s a special one. A few weeks ago I had the wonderful opportunity to fill in on The Strange By Nature podcast, and I’m cross-posting that episode here. Nature’s amazing, as you know, and often a bit strange and strange by nature, presents curated stories of the weird and unbelievable side of nature.
[00:00:22] Kirk, Rachel and Victoria, the host of Strange by Nature, are a ton of fun and it shows ’em their production. In this episode, we cover such diverse topics as the demon, core poisonous birds and nature’s genetic engineers. So be sure to check out their podcast on any podcast app or check out the link to their show and the show notes here, or on podcast dot nature’s archive.com and the more traditional Nature’s Archive episodes will be back in two weeks.
[00:00:48] We have topics ranging from bats to snowflakes to landscape scale connectivity coming. , and one more thing. Nature’s Archive and Jumpstart Nature are starting work on a new podcast concept and we need your help. We’re looking for stories about people who have had a sudden and unexpected connection with nature.
[00:01:06] In particular, we would like to hear about turning points where someone was maybe disconnected from nature, perhaps ignoring it, or unaware or simply taking it for granted. But then there was an event that suddenly opened their. Perhaps it was a wildlife encounter, a career change, a health event, or meeting a particularly charismatic nature advocate.
[00:01:26] Whatever it was, we’d like to hear about these aha moments that caused people to shift and become nature advocates. , maybe it’s your story or maybe you’d like to connect us to someone you know, but if you can help, please email a summary to podcast jumpstart nature.com. We’ll read every submission and we may be in touch to interview you.
[00:01:45] Thank you. Now onto our special crossover, airing of my appearance on strange by nature.
[00:02:00] Kirk: You are listening to Strange By Nature, your guide to the strange, weird, unbelievable, and improbable wonders of the natural world.
[00:02:16] Hello everyone. Thanks for being here today. I am Kirk Mona, and I am joined today by Rachel Giza and Victoria Thompson. We are all professional and naturalists who together have scoured the world for weird and wonderful wonders. Just to please your mammalian brain. The desire for novelty isn’t that nice?
[00:02:33] Let’s do this. Hey everybody. Welcome. I pretty excited to have everybody here. Something a little bit strange going on, which I know doesn’t sound too surprising. Sense. I mean, we are the podcast by nature. This is. Strange by nature. So you’d expect something strange happening. But Victoria is not here.
[00:02:51] There’s a stranger here among us. A stranger to you, perhaps. Uh, not to me. Uh, we have, uh, Michael with us here instead of Victoria tonight. Victoria is off, uh, once again, uh, studying to become a nurse. So we brought Michael in and I’m gonna let Michael, uh, tell you a little bit about who he is. Hey Michael.
[00:03:12] Hey. Hello
[00:03:12] Michael: Kirk. Hi, Rachel. Hello. I’m Michael. I’m Michael Hawk and I am a, uh, just relatively recent acquaintance of Kirk and a longtime fan of Strange By Nature. I also have a podcast called Nature’s Archive that’s been running for a couple of years, and it’s an interview-based podcast, and I am starting a brand new nature nonprofit called Jumpstart Nature Launching on December 1st.
[00:03:37] So that’s me in a, in a nutshell, that’s,
[00:03:40] Rachel: that’s so awesome, exciting. Congratulations, Michael. .
[00:03:44] Michael: Well, thank you. And it’s, it’s a little bit, uh, challenging, I should say because I spent the last 25 years in the tech industry, so it’s a big change for me. But I’ve had like one foot in the environmental space for the entire time and have really like fallen, you know, head over heels, I guess is the expression for insects and native plants and birds and, oh yeah.
[00:04:07] You know, so,
[00:04:08] Kirk: That’s how we get you. And that’s the exact kind of stuff you talk about and you and your guests talk about on your podcast. Uh, you are really great at finding really interesting people to talk to. Who are those experts to bring in and talk about all your favorite topics, right.
[00:04:23] Michael: Exactly.
[00:04:23] That’s really helpful in learning. And that’s partly how, or the reason why I started it was like, okay, I love to talk to people. I love to share, I love to learn. So I can have a podcast. And that’s a really good excuse to get people like Doug Tmy, you know, on a show and you know, speak with them one-on-one.
[00:04:39] Rachel: amazing. Well, also that’s just awesome. Great for science communication too.
[00:04:46] Michael: Absolutely. I love. Using my ability, and right now I’m stumbling over my words, so it probably’s not coming up. But, uh, I, I, I love to use my ability to communicate and maybe to bridge gaps between people. And that’s one of the other goals of that podcast.
[00:05:02] Kirk: Cool. Can you give us a quick like, sort of summary of what this new organization is that you’re starting up?
[00:05:08] Michael: Sure. Yeah. So I guess said it’s called Jumpstart Nature and. There’s a million different nature nonprofits out there. I didn’t want to recreate the wheel, and I thought really long and hard about like, what skills do I have?
[00:05:19] What can I do that’s different? What I’m looking to do is take kind of a next generation approach and use technology and good social science to help empower people and give them agency in starting their own personal journey to help the environment. So, so many people I talked to, , I don’t know where to start.
[00:05:40] They feel overwhelmed. I, it’s like, I’m just one person, what can I do? Mm-hmm. . Sure. And I want to help people get over that. So that’s the primary goal. And I’m gonna do that through a variety of means from, you know, audio content and podcasts to, uh, I, I have a mobile app, of course, I live in Silicon Valley.
[00:05:56] Everybody has to have an app. , right? . So those are, those are a couple of the big items that I’m looking to use. And then of course, there’s just good old fashioned, traditional getting out there, meeting people, amplifying the good nonprofits that are already doing great work, you know, as best I can.
[00:06:12] Kirk: So, cool, cool.
[00:06:13] It’ll be fun to see what, uh, what comes of that, uh, in the near future. Yeah. Congratulations. Thank you. Well, you ready for some, uh, some strange, uh, nature stories, folks? Only always, Kirk, always . I’m, I’m kicking things off this week. This sum this, um, my story actually hearkens back to the past summer. You guys remember what summer was like, right?
[00:06:34] I don’t know. It’s pretty cold. Victoria. Yeah. Victoria had a, uh, episode on the show here where she talked about natural nuclear reactors that formed underground and gaon. Oh, I
[00:06:46] Rachel: remember that. Do you remember this? Yeah, I do. That was very cool. That was not easy to find an image for, for our social media
[00:06:54] Kirk: I’m sure not. Yeah. Um, maybe some like drawings out of like a, um, a scientific paper. Mm-hmm. , uh, That her story reminded me of another story, and I was actually going to sort of typing, you know, some, some notes down and thinking about it last summer. But then I, I said, oh, maybe this would make a good Halloween episode.
[00:07:12] Mm-hmm. . So I shelved it. And then when I discovered our, at my actual Halloween topic I used, which was the, uh, vampire mm-hmm. butterflies. Yep. Uh, I realized that it was time, I gotta pull this one out as well. Uh, so I’m bringing you the story of the demonn core. The what this week. The Demonn core , which, okay, uh, you may thinking, what does it have to do with nature?
[00:07:37] You know, remember on this show we often talk about nature in a very broad sense of all sort of natural phenomenon, including things people do with things from nature. And this is in a case of story, of, um, a strange tale of what can go wrong when we maybe don’t respect these strange and powerful forces of nature.
[00:07:57] I’m, I’m in summer. Good. Concerned. That’s the idea, but. You baby, you should be. Um, when Victoria started her segment, uh, back in the summer, she was talking about how humans were experimenting back in the 1940s with creating and sustaining nuclear fission in the form of atomic bombs. Uh, we also talked, uh, in the bonus material for that episode that our patrons heard.
[00:08:20] Um, so I really, I wanna refresh this cuz I realize only they heard this. Um, we talked about, uh, radiation. and the conversation eventually came around to talking about the fear that people have of radiation. Uh, and this, that fear is actually why I ended up doing a video series on YouTube you can find called Your Radioactive House, where I basically show all the viewers all the naturally radioactive things that you probably have in your home right at this very moment.
[00:08:47] And long story short, if you don’t want to, uh, you know, watch all those video. Um, if you don’t want any radioactive particles in your house, you would need to get rid of bananas. Uh, granite countertops, smoke detectors, some camera lenses, uh, some dishes, water pitchers, flower pots. Oh, um, and your house probably also shouldn’t touch the soil.
[00:09:09] Oh. And you would need to completely shield your house from gamma rays, from space. Uh, you basically need to enclose your house and several feet of lead, which isn’t practical, nor is it necessary. Also lead.
[00:09:18] Rachel: Isn’t that great for you? Any either. ,
[00:09:21] Kirk: that’s not great either. So low levels of naturally occurring radiation are not harmful to humans.
[00:09:27] Uh, we evolved on a planet that is, that was and literally is bathed in radiation. And our bodies have natural repair mechanisms to deal with the small amounts of background radiation that we encounter every day. Um, one of the things that’s kind of interesting is we don’t really know how. Radiation is actually problematic.
[00:09:47] Um, because it’s, you know, not really ethical to do testing on that. Yeah. We know that high doses you can get acute radiation poisoning and we know that lower doses, um, for a long term can cause problems like cancers, but we’re not really sure. What is the safe levels from risk for things like cancer? And for that reason, experts recommend you just keep your total exposure as low as possible.
[00:10:13] Just that’s sort of the safety, uh, guideline there. Now, our average listener, uh, is exposed to 6.2 milli seavers of radiation per year. Yes. You, that’s you what? 6.2 Milli Seavert says how much you get. For astronauts that are spending six months on the International Space Station, they are above a lot of that protective atmosphere.
[00:10:33] They get somewhere between 50 and 2000 milli Seavers during their stay on the iss, so quite a lot more. Um, you’re sucking up something like 322 years worth of radiation in just six months if you’re on the space station. It’s interesting to note that no study has ever shown astronauts are at higher risk for cancers than the general population, even though they’re getting 322 years worth of radiation in six months.
[00:11:04] So that’s gives you some indication that like, you know, there’s, there’s a, an area that’s still safe to to be in there. So the story I wanna tell you about today though, is about some people that did in point of fact die from radiation exposure, and it all came down to carelessness and overconfidence.
[00:11:20] And I wish I could say that it was like really early on and they just didn’t know better. But these scientists absolutely did know better and should not have done what they did. Oh, so, oh, no. Uh, Victoria had also talked about, uh, the early days of the Manhattan project. Mm-hmm. . And once they understood that fission was in fact possible and they wanted to come up with, uh, a way to make it into a bomb, uh, and scientists initially experimented with, uh, both uranium and plutonium to do that.
[00:11:48] The bomb dropped on, uh, Hiroshima was. Uh, uranium based while the bomb dropped in, uh, Nagasaki was actually plutonium based. Hmm. And these first two designs were of course, uh, dropped on August 6th and ninth of 1945. Some people don’t realize there was actually a third bomb set to be dropped about one week later.
[00:12:07] But because Japan surrendered, it ended up never being used, which is probably a very good thing. That’s awesome. Um, I will say, as an aside, it boggles my mind that the active core of these devices, like the actual radioactive material, is extremely small. Um, so if you’re looking at like a plutonian device, the, the actual core that undergoes nuclear fision is only 3.5 inches.
[00:12:31] What, which is really small , so this is pretty potent stuff we’re talking about. That’s tiny. Um, and the way it works is that the core has just enough gallium mixed in with the plutonium atoms to keep the plutonium, like just far enough away from each other, um, to keep it from going what’s called super critical and having sustained fission all by itself.
[00:12:56] And they basically wrap a shape charge or a bomb, or that’s detonated around the core. It compresses it. And now when the atoms are tightly enough packed together, It releases the magic as it were. Um, so this third bomb, uh, that was unused, had a plutonium core that was originally called rufuss, which just sounds really cute and sort of almost terrifying that they called it that.
[00:13:19] That’s so silly. But this, this. This third core would soon get a new name. It would soon be known as the Demonn core. So researchers had this third core, uh, that was now not being used, so they decided to do experiments with it, to which seems pretty reasonable. They spent tons of money to make this and we wanna learn more about it.
[00:13:37] They were still trying to understand the ways these materials behaved, um, and these newly minted atomic researchers, uh, having access to something like this. invaluable. So they were doing experiments with it, and the core had been designed to be very close to going super critical all by itself. Hmm. But the researchers wanted to know like, how close had they gotten?
[00:13:58] Because this is sort of an experiment. Like we wanted it close, but how close did we really get? Seems important. So, yeah. I mean, you do need to know that. Yeah. Don’t want too close,
[00:14:08] Rachel: but it’s seem super safe. Oh.
[00:14:11] Kirk: Oh no. Rachel . Wait till you hear how they figured it out. Oh. Uh, they wanna know, like, uh, you know, how close were they to critical?
[00:14:22] So what they did is on August 21st, 1945, uh, physicist Harry, uh, Dian, I believe is how you say his name, was experimenting with the core by placing blocks of tungsten carbide around it to act as reflectors for the escaping neutrons. So this is radioactive, you know, neutrons are escaping and if you put tungston carbide around, Some of those neutrons get bounced back into the core where they can start to, um, you know, create more reactions.
[00:14:49] So it’s, it’s kind of the same as packing the, um, the core tighter just by putting stuff around it that reflects those neutrons back in. Does that make sense? Yeah. So , he was, um, putting these reflecting blocks around there and, um, this kind of has the same effect of adding more plutonium. And they would place a brick, take measurements, place a brick, take measure, GA measurements.
[00:15:15] And you could do that carefully. But he accidentally dropped one of these bricks directly onto the core. Oh no. And it. Immediately started to glow blue run. As it ionized the air in the lab, you run away and pretty much instantly went super critical. Of course, he quickly flicked the brick off it, um, but it was too late.
[00:15:39] Within seconds, he was standing right there. His body had absorbed a, a fatal dose of radiation. He actually died 25 days later Oh, of acute radiation poisoning, and that that brick was only on there for seconds. But that’s all it took. Yeah. Now you would think at this point people would’ve learned their.
[00:15:59] No, but no. Uh, just months later, researchers were again working with the same core, and this time they were not using bricks. They thought maybe that’s not a good idea. So they created a special shell that went around it in two halves, like a reflector shell. This time, uh, the core was sitting in the bottom half and they could raise and lower the top.
[00:16:19] Very carefully while taking measurements. And so this seemed like a good idea to them. And you would think they would have some sort of like fancy machine to do this careful measure of grazing and lowering. No, this is like
[00:16:30] Rachel: the forties, right? Forties, fifties. No. Yeah, you’d be wrong. No, no. They’re
[00:16:33] Kirk: doing it by hand.
[00:16:34] You put a thumb sized hole. In the top half of the shell. Oh my God. And a researcher would stick their thumb in it and hold onto it a bit like half of a bowling ball. Oh. And like care and just start mo, move it up and down with their hand. Extremely bad idea. Now dropping that and fully enclosing the, the, the core in a reflector was super dangerous.
[00:16:55] Uh, and they, they realized that. So the protocol was to have some like wedge. In between the two have, so they could not fully enclose the core. Well, researcher, uh, Louis, uh, slot. Uh, was a bit of a show off. He preferred to remove the shams and simply put a flathead screwdriver between the two halves and move it up and down like a lever.
[00:17:15] Ah, and he said he could get even closer to criticality this way. Um, and he absolutely should have known better. Famously, Enrico Fermi, uh, was visiting the lab and saw him demonstrate this technique, and he was quoted as telling the researchers that they would all be dead within a. If they continued to do this, uh, turns out he was right.
[00:17:36] Wow. On May 21st, 1946, just six months after the previous accident, while showing the technique to his replacement, the screwdriver slipped. There was a flash of blue light, a feeling of heat, and a metallic taste in their mouths. Um, he quickly used the screwdriver to flick the top off the shelf and stop the core from more, uh, super criticality.
[00:17:56] Uh, the burst of radiation was estimated to have lasted only. Of a second. Oh my goodness. He was dead within nine days. So the question that people wanted to figure out, How much radiation did, uh, these people absorb? Uh, in the first accident, it’s thought that, uh, Harry absorbed 2000 milli seavers in the second.
[00:18:20] Uh, the second guy was thought to have absorbed 10,000 milli sieverts. I dunno if I said seavers milli sieverts for both of them. 2000 milli sieverts and 10,000 milli sieverts. Oh, put it some math here compared to the average, uh, citizen. Like, like you guys, um, who absorb background radi radiation. DAG was exposed to 322 years worth of radiation in that half second or so, and slot was exposed to 1,612 years of radiation in uh, like half a second
[00:18:53] So what I think is interesting about this is when I started off, I mentioned earlier, astronauts in the ISS can absorb 2000 millisieverts of radiation if they stay it for six months. That’s the same amount that the first guy absorb. , but it’s over a and and lots are
[00:19:08] Rachel: totally fine period of time. Not in a, you know, three second period.
[00:19:15] Kirk: Exactly. So it just goes to show like how, you know, cuz again, I think, you know, we’re talking about nature, uh, radioactive elements, um, you know, and radiation from space. These are things we all encounter every single day, you know, of our lives. We just don’t even know that it’s happening and they literally don.
[00:19:33] Cause any problems cause our bodies have evolved to deal with that over all this time. But it’s, it’s really interesting that when that comes very quickly, the effect is quite different and our bodies absolutely cannot handle that. So I, in the wake of these accidents, uh, the core of plutonium obtained the nickname the Demonn core.
[00:19:51] Mm-hmm. . It was actually too badly damaged from going super critical to actually be ever used in a weapon, and it was essentially melted down, uh, and recycled into other projects. So it no longer exists today, which thank God, like a pretty good thing. Um, so that’s, you know, the story I wanted to tell you this week about this strange part of nature that, uh, we need.
[00:20:13] In some sense, not be as afraid of as some people are because it is a naturally occurring thing that in the amounts that we would normally encounter, uh, really are not necessarily dangerous for us. But when it becomes, uh, very concentrated, uh, like many things in nature, you know, like eat too many mushrooms, you can get sick, get bit by too many spiders, you can get really sick.
[00:20:34] Like there’s these things that we can handle in small doses, but when we have a large, you know, dose all at once can prove fat.
[00:20:42] Michael: I have a dental appointment next week. Kirk and I have a full set of x-rays lined up. Is that safe? You should be good. Okay. You
[00:20:48] Kirk: should be good. Yeah. amazing. I do wanna bring my Geiger counter to the dentist someday and see, like, can I pick up, can I detect that with the, I don’t know if it would detect x-rays.
[00:20:57] I’m kind of fascinated. I know. Um, micer and Yeah, of course. I like I from that kind of person.
[00:21:03] Rachel: I knew you had one and
[00:21:04] Kirk: it’s still funny. My sources. Yeah, my sources this week were the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measures and Wikipedia. We’re gonna take a quick break here and when we come back, uh, Michael has got something strange to share with us as well.
[00:21:25] Strange By Nature Podcast is brought to you by listeners like you who have joined the Society of Strange, our membership group On over at patreon.com/strange. By Nature Society of Strange members can join at one of three different membership levels and help support the show. And also get some fun stuff like water bottle stickers.
[00:21:45] Or access to a super secret content. So a thank you to those who have joined already to help make this podcast possible. If you haven’t joined yet, we’ll see you soon over at the Society of Strange at patreon.com/strange by nature. See you soon.
[00:22:08] Michael: All right, we’re back. And for my strange thing, I guess, let me start even backing up a little bit. One of the lessons that I learned from the last couple of years being a little closer to home, is that there are some incredibly strange animals in our yards and neighborhood parks. And I’m not talking about your neighbor, by the way,
[00:22:26] I mean, they’re, I I want to highlight something that’s close to our homes though, and that pretty much anyone listening could see no matter where you’re. So today I’m profiling genetic engineers. Okay? These aren’t your typical engineers. They’re only about two millimeters long. What? And they’ve been refining their engineering capabilities for almost 115 million years.
[00:22:50] Rachel: so what you’re saying is that my friend who went to my friends who have gone to school for engineering, they should go for a little. .
[00:22:59] Michael: I think they need some more time. Yes. Just to refine it. Okay. That’s not quite set ready yet. You’ll hear, yeah. You’ll hear exactly why that is here at a moment. So they use these powers, these little two mi, two millimeter genetic engineers.
[00:23:11] They use these powers to induce others to actually grow food and shelter for them. And they’ve also played a vital part in the writing of the Dead Seas Scrolls, the Magna Carta, and even compositions by Van Gogh and Beethoven. Ooh, I’m fascinating. I’m. So, yeah. Who are these engineers? And if you haven’t guessed it by now, they are the approximately 132,000 species of insects that can induce plant gulls.
[00:23:38] G a l l. There you go.
[00:23:39] Kirk: I love, I was thinking, I’m thinking about written documents. I’m like, oh, I got it. I know where he is going. . Oh yeah. So
[00:23:45] Rachel: I, I kind of was guessing from the background of your zoom, not gonna lie, .
[00:23:50] Michael: Yes. I have a big old ba gall behind me. Oh. So the, just real quick, the reason why I brought up those documents and compositions is because plant galls can be a source of ink and that was discovered many, many, oh, hundreds of years ago.
[00:24:04] Rachel: Is that where gall ink, that is gallin then? Yeah. That’s where it comes from. Yes. That’s so
[00:24:09] Michael: cool. . So if you’ve never seen a plant gall, these are growths on plants that, as I said, can serve as food and shelter for insect larva, and they can occur on almost any part of a plant. So the leaves stems, even fruit or flowers.
[00:24:22] And the roots of a plant can be galled by certain specialists, and some of these Gus are cryptic and tiny. Others are large and really colorful. Some look like strawberries, like the one behind me, peanuts, mushrooms, or just other strange shapes, fuzzy sticks, whatever the case might be. Mm-hmm. . So Gus are often somewhat inaccurately described as a tumor on a plant.
[00:24:45] And I say inaccurately because if you think about a tumor that’s often kind of an uncontrolled cellular multiplication, uh, or a random growth sort
[00:24:55] Rachel: of thing. Yeah. And it’s controlled by the plant itself, not by an outside force.
[00:25:00] Michael: Yes. Uh, and exactly. So Gus are actually very structured and they’re consistent in their growth pattern.
[00:25:06] So I usually, if somebody asks me, well, what’s a gall? I say, well, it’s a structured growth on plant tissues that was induced by an insect to aid them in their lifecycle. Hmm. But you may see other growth on plants. Great.
[00:25:16] Kirk: Succinct de description
[00:25:18] Michael: there. Yeah. And that’s, that helps you understand the difference between that and a burl, or, you know, something else you might see on a mm-hmm.
[00:25:25] plant. Mm-hmm. . So these galling insects, Varied. They can include midges, fruit flies, soft flies, moths and wasps, which I think is strange and amazing. It’s just like so many different insects have figured this out, and even Aach Ns. What really? There’s some mites that can do this. Yes. Whoa. Fascinating. Yeah, and to be just completely accurate, fungi figured out, galling, even before the insects did.
[00:25:49] So go back 150 plus million years and there’s evidence of fungi, gulls, and even bacteria can be gallers. That’s crazy. Hmm. Even this huge array though, I wanted to focus at least a little bit and talk about Sure. Snippet, wasps or the oak was Oh yeah. Ballers. Ooh. Ooh. I think a lot of people, yeah, when they hear the word wasp, they might think of a yellow jacket or a paper wasp or something that’s kind of big, maybe a little bit scary and stingy.
[00:26:15] Uh, but these gall wasps, they’re tiny. And if you’re lucky enough to see one. , you might even mistake it for a fruit fly. They’re that small, like I said before, just a couple millimeters. Mm-hmm. . And these wasps, they no longer sting. So they’re one of the mini mini wasps that don’t sting, and instead they have specialized OPOs.
[00:26:34] And this is where things really start to get wild, at least in my opinion. Ooh. So what happens is these WAFs time, their emergence and the over positing with the budding of their host, and in the case of CIP wasps, the, their hosts are almost always oak trees, but there are some roses and tan oaks that they can take advantage of as well.
[00:26:55] Okay, so this timing that I mentioned with the budding is critical because there’s a really short period of time where the buds have what’s called meristematic issue that have undifferentiated cells. . Oh, okay. Okay. Yeah. So the way you think about this is kind of like a stem cell that can be turned into many different things, and somehow these wasps and other insects as well have figured out how to manipulate these cells to grow Gus.
[00:27:20] So how do they do it? Okay. Well, yeah. The wasp will insert its egg into the bud at just that right time. And when it does so, it will also insert some hormones that modify the genetic expression of the plant, and it’s believed. , just again, to cover all the bases that some species maybe take a slightly different approach.
[00:27:38] I mean, it is nature after all. There’s always exceptions. Mm-hmm. . Mm-hmm. . And, uh, the larva itself might actually have the chemical reaction that induces the gall in some cases. Right. Right. Uh, and you, as you can imagine, it’s really hard to study this. . These relationships are so finely tuned that a given WA species might only be able to induce a gall on like one host.
[00:27:59] They’re specialized to that extent, or maybe a small number of closely related hosts. And the process is also so precise that the gulls they produce are gonna look the same across, you know, all of the different instances. So one species will always create the same looking gall. Well, there’s one exception to that as well.
[00:28:16] Rachel: There always
[00:28:17] Michael: is, yes. So the gall, then it grows really quickly and inside of it are little chambers where the egg can be, or the larva. The egg will hatch and the larva will come out. In some cases, there can be actually multiple larvae inside of the gall. Now it gets strangers still, of course, so some of the sign wasps will have two generations a year.
[00:28:40] Not too uncommon for insect. The spring generation takes advantage, of course of spring growth and the fall generation for late season growth that a plant might have. You know, you need those buds. However, nearly everything about these two generations is different. So the spring generation might be a bisexual generation of males and females, where, whereas the fall generation is unisexual, females only, that reproduce through pathogenesis.
[00:29:06] Amazing. Wow. The morphology of all of these are different too. So even the males and females look different and the springing and fall generation can look different. And the gulls themselves look totally different too. And this was figured out before DNA bar coding existed. So the biologist who figured this out, I don’t know how they did it.
[00:29:24] Like that would be a great story. Yeah,
[00:29:26] Rachel: man. How on earth did you even, like, you look at something that looks completely different, it’s like, ah, that’s the same thing. What? I have no
[00:29:35] Michael: idea. So I know what they often do is they will, they will take these Gs and try to rear the insects that, uh, are inside of them.
[00:29:44] But yeah, you still have to figure out that this thing that looks totally different is the same anyway. So as if figuring out that and having all these different classes of genetic engineers isn’t strange. Again, it’s nature and there’s an entire group of parasitoids and inco lenss that have figured out how to specialize on Gus.
[00:30:06] Oh yeah. Not, you’re not familiar with a parasitoid. I call it the evil step sibling of a parasite. A parasites not going to kill you, but a parasitoid will kill you. . Oh yeah. So most of the gall parasitoids are actually also wasps and many are also in the same family. The uh, sign was. And they have evolved interesting to insert their eggs into existing gulls and they can even probe around with their specialized, really long ova tors to try to find a larva inside or find the right chamber to put their own egg.
[00:30:42] Kirk: Wow. Wait, when you say to find the larva, are they trying to. Like, just put it in the same area or actually like inject it into the actual larva. I
[00:30:52] Michael: think both cases exist from what I’ve read. Whoa, that’s wild. Now the gulls, of course, it’s an arms race. They have figured out to, uh, create empty chambers to try to throw off these parasitoids.
[00:31:06] Uh, and then they also make thicker walls and there’s other cool things they do. Now, Inco lens, I don’t know if you’re familiar with an inin. No. So my, my friend, yeah. Uh, Dr. Mira Vatra, she calls them an uninvited guest, so, ah, you can think of them like an uninvited house guest that comes and they eat all your food, so, oh, food, right?
[00:31:30] Yeah. They’ll come in and, uh, and take away the food. They don’t intend necessarily to kill the host call, but they might accidentally by eating all the food. Sure. Mm-hmm. , and again, given its nature, , there’s a mimic of gulls as well. Of course. In fact, it’s not just a mimic. There’s an entire family of scale insects that have evolved to look just like gulls, and they also prefer oak trees, which is just wild to think about.
[00:31:57] Oh wow. Some of them look like marbles. Other others look like a thickened leaf. You know? There are different morphologies for gulls, and these Sta insects have figured this out too. And . I’ve been lucky to find a couple of those in the wild and they trick me every time. Okay. Fascinating stuff I think. But Gu absolutely one.
[00:32:17] They’re one of those things where when you start noticing them, you seem to find them everywhere. So not just oak trees. Oh yeah. Even the invasive Canada thistle, which by the way is not from Canada, no. Has a common galler. It’s a fruit fly. So you can find those when the Canada thistles are out. And if you’re interested, there’s actually even an event every year called Gall week.
[00:32:39] Encourages people interested in nature to get out and document their goals on iNaturalist. I can share that information with you if you’re interested.
[00:32:47] Rachel: Oh my gosh, absolutely. I love iNaturalist. I think it’s a really cool citizen science project and like a great way to get people involved, but I didn’t know about gall week.
[00:32:58] That’s so cool. .
[00:33:00] Michael: Yeah. And to your point on community science, the last thing I’ll add is there are many species of Gus being discovered all the time. There’s a lot of gulls that are known to exist but have not been reared. So there’s a lot of work to do. And I even discovered a previously unknown gall in my own backyard.
[00:33:16] So this is one of those things where if you start to get interested in it, you who knows what you’re gonna discover. Absolutely. And my references for this today, there’s a wonderful book called Plant Galls of the Western United States by Ronald Russo, and it’s kind of like a field guide. Mm-hmm. and I found a really interesting article in the Tropical Conservation Science Journal that talks about plant richness as a surrogate for galling diversity.
[00:33:42] So that’s, uh, actually interesting to. And I’ve had a couple of gall guests on my podcast as well, and I use some of the information they provided, uh, Dr. Doug tk, and there’s a website called Golf Formers, the co-founder Adam Krantz or guests on the podcast. Oh, so, so
[00:33:59] Rachel: cool. Uh, I do have one question for you.
[00:34:03] Certainly. Did you get to name the gal that you found in your backyard?
[00:34:08] Michael: Well, uh, no. So the process for this to actually properly document it would be, , I would need to rear it and I would need to send it to an academic who could actually do all of the detailed microscopy to identify what it is and describe it to that level of detail.
[00:34:27] And there’s only like one or two people that do this type of work. Okay. They are backlogged for for like years. Imagine so . Oh yeah. It’s, uh, yeah, I, I don’t think it’s gonna happen. I tried to rear it though, but I was not successful in rearing it, so I’ll try again. If they show up again next year, I,
[00:34:48] Rachel: wow.
[00:34:48] Very cool. Can’t wait to hear. That’s so cool. Thank you,
[00:34:51] Michael: Michael. Okay. But that we’ll go to the break and Rachel will be next. Woo.
[00:35:05] Rachel: Welcome back everyone. Uh, so we’re gonna actually start by joining a researcher way back in 1989. Maybe both of you remember this period of time. Um, mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. , I, I was not alive yet. Don’t say that Rachel.
[00:35:22] Kirk: I feel so old when you say that kind
[00:35:24] Rachel: of thing. That’s why I say it. Kirk . Okay. Um, so we’re joining a researcher, Jack dumb Bacher, uh, on his trip to Papa New Guinea.
[00:35:36] Uh, he’s in search of some birds of paradise, so he’s using mis nets. Kirk, I know you are really familiar with mis nets being a bird bander. Yep. Um, to catch the birds that are there. Um, There aren’t the only kinds of birds that are in the forest of Papua New Guinea, uh, that he’s looking for in particular.
[00:35:57] Sure. So, There’s another bird that shows up. Um, this bird is black and orange. Uh, about, it’s a medium size bird, about like the size of like an orchard, Oreo, about nine inches long. Um, okay. It has a rustic orange that covers the body in the back, but the head, the wings, the tail and the upper breast of the bird are, Uh, it’s got a strong, that’s pretty cool.
[00:36:29] Yeah, it’s really cool. Just wait. Um, it’s got a strong black beak and has dark red eyes. Uh, some of ’em have more like chocolate brown or like brown eyes. Um, but Jack probably, probably depends on
[00:36:44] Kirk: age. Absolutely. Absolutely.
[00:36:46] Rachel: Probably be nerd. Sorry. Yeah. Well, duh. That’s why we’re here. Kirk . Uh, so Jack being the researcher, he’s removing the birds from the nest.
[00:36:54] Um, In order to make sure that the birds are unharmed. He’s not wearing gloves or anything like that. He gets a few cuts and,
[00:37:02] Kirk: oh my God, Rachel, what? I have to take this off my list now.
[00:37:10] Rachel: Excellent. I love this story so much. Uh, so he gets a few cuts and things from the birds as they scratch at ’em, cuz they’re trying to get away. There’s this. Thing that’s moving them from this thing that they’re caught in. They think they’re about to be eaten. Yeah, I mean, I would bite and scratch at things, uh, if that were happening to me.
[00:37:28] Um, and he notices that like the cuts and the scratches kind of hurt a little more than they should. And at one point, Uhhuh , he accidentally touches his mouth and his lips and tongue kind of tingle and burn after that. Uh, now this isn’t unknown. Uh, scientists have worked with these. In particular in the mu in a museum collection.
[00:37:49] And they noticed that after handling and working with them to display these birds, uh, there was a numbness or burning in their hands, uh, from working with these birds. So amazing. So after talking with the locals, uh, which honestly of course they would know about this bird. They’re the locals, right? Uh, they tell Jack that this particular bird, ah, yeah, that’s not good food.
[00:38:14] It’s not really good. That bird isn’t good for anything in particular. Just let it go. It doesn’t really matter. Uh, so Jack collects some feathers and, uh, was able to send it to John Daley at the National Institute of Health, who happened to be a chemist, uh, who actually on a side note in, I think it was 1968, was the person to discover this thing that I’m gonna talk about in him second.
[00:38:43] Um, it turns out that this little bird in Papa New Guinea has so, in common with some very small frogs in South America. Uh, the TUI bird, which is what I’m talking about, is one of the only poisonous birds in the world.
[00:39:06] Kirk: Yeah. Poisonous birds
[00:39:08] Rachel: is not
[00:39:08] Kirk: venomous poison. There’s a handful. There’s a handful.
[00:39:10] Handful of them, but this is a pretty
[00:39:11] Rachel: one. Yeah. So this was. There were a handful of birds that were poisonous. Um, even back in Audubon’s day, I was reading a little bit about the Carolina parakeet, uh, while researching for this, uh, episode. Um, but they unfortunately don’t exist anymore. And I wanted to talk about the Ptui, cuz when I heard about it I was like, hold on.
[00:39:35] The. and I learned a little bit more. So not only are they one of the only handful of poisonous birds in the world, but their feathers, skin and tissues actually contain, contain rat. Hold on. Rat track. Cottin, which is also found in little frogs in South America called Poison Dirt Frog like poison dark.
[00:40:03] Yeah. Uh, which actually the braco toxin was the, was discovered by Jim Daley in 1968. John Daley, I’m sorry. Seems like a,
[00:40:17] Kirk: yeah, seems like a pretty good guy to, uh, send those feather samples to then.
[00:40:21] Rachel: Truly, truly, yeah. . Um, now this isn’t something that the tui birds actually produce themselves. It’s actually a form of Klepto Tism, uh, because yeah, they actually eat something called, um, ade beetle, uh, which is super toxic and contains.
[00:40:42] Toxin. Um, and it actually. They’re able to take that toxin and put it into their own bodies to make themselves poisonous. We’re not exactly sure. This was just discovered there was, um, a paper written about it in 1992, so it’s still being researched and we didn’t get the particular toxin until early two thousands, so Okay.
[00:41:10] It’s still being researched at, right. . Um, but so ptui birds actually also eat seeds and fruit. They don’t just eat the, these little beetles. Uh, but what is really curious that scientists are trying to figure out is they’re trying to figure out why these birds are eating and using and having poison. They don’t need this, um, , like they’re not super brightly colored.
[00:41:43] depending on how much, uh, bera toxin they have, uh, they can be a little redder in coloration rather than being a more chest nutty russett brown, orange. Um, so they don’t really, so there’s
[00:42:00] Kirk: a correlation between the, their, the color of their feathers and how much of this they’ve ingested
[00:42:06] Rachel: Slightly, yes. So, but they don’t necessarily warn predators from that.
[00:42:12] But there are a couple hypotheses why these birds have, uh, the, can, I guess yes,
[00:42:21] Kirk: is one of them for, um, like keeping parasites out of their nest.
[00:42:28] Rachel: Not out of their nest, but out of off of them. Off of them, okay. Mm-hmm. . Gotcha. So there are some parasites that have actually been shown. To avoid Bercot Toin in, um, some studies.
[00:42:43] So they think, so scientists who are studying this actually think that that’s one of the reasons why they partake in this KLEPTO system. Uh, so that way they’re protecting themselves from parasites, so they’re not being eaten alive. Cool. They do live in Papua New Guinea, which is a pretty tropical forested area.
[00:43:03] yeah. Um, but they also, the other hypothesis that could be actually. It’s not exclusive, you know what I mean? Like both of these hypotheses have merit and could be reasons behind this behavior and why they have this toxin, um Oh, absolutely. Is to also help deter predators. So even though they’re not super brightly colored, it is a hypothesis that it does help prevent predators from going after them.
[00:43:31] Because, I mean, I wouldn’t eat a bird that was in those sort of warning colors, if. , I if like my cousin Ted de like died from eating that thing, you know? Right. .
[00:43:43] Kirk: Right.
[00:43:45] Michael: Does this bird have known creditors?
[00:43:48] Rachel: It does. Uh, I mean, it’s not a large bird, generally speaking. Um, they have a number of potential predators, um, including, uh, a lot of the snakes, including.
[00:44:03] Brown tree snakes and ground tree pythons and such. Um, they are avian predators in New Guinea. Um, those species have been shown to be, um, irritated by this particular toxin, so Okay. It’s absolutely an. Easy, uh, correlation to make between the two. Sure. It could be some sort of a deterrent there. Mm-hmm. , um, otherwise local hunters wouldn’t eat that.
[00:44:35] Won’t eat that bird. It’s, um, because it’s, well, there you go. There’s a deterrence right there. Uh, it’s very big deterrence, otherwise like, Hunters in that area do hunt songbirds of similar size, uh, but they don’t go after this particular bird because they taste bad and make you numb and potentially kill you.
[00:44:55] Um, there you go. . Yeah. Cool. Yeah. Super fun. Well, what a fascinating species. Yeah. So that’s what I have for you all this week. Um, my sources include Australian Geographic, Wikipedia, the National Institute of Health, and, uh, a McGill article by Jo Joe Suarez. Uh, they were all very fascinating reason, actually, were super helpful in learning a little more about this bird.
[00:45:22] Uh, so excellent. And leave. That’s all we have for you this week. Thank you, Michael.
[00:45:28] Kirk: Let’s, Michael, thank you
[00:45:30] Michael: for coming us, for joining us. Thank you for having me.
[00:45:32] Kirk: Um, everyone check out, uh, nature’s Archive podcast if you have not. Yeah.
[00:45:37] Rachel: Do you have any, do you have any social media or things that you want people to follow you on, Michael?
[00:45:43] Michael: Oh, yeah. Thank you. Uh, I, I’m on most of the normal social media platforms as Nature’s Archive at Nature’s Archive. One word. My new endeavor, jumpstart. Nature is at Jumpstart Nature, also one word.
[00:45:57] Rachel: Awesome. We’ll make sure to link those in our social media posts and such this week. Definitely. Go check those things.
[00:46:04] Go check out his new podcast. Go check out Jumpstart Nature. Um, until next week everyone,
[00:46:12] Kirk: if thanks for coming. Bye bye bye. Thanks everyone for listening to today’s show. Be sure to subscribe. New episodes drop every Wednesday and we love sharing this strange world with all of our listeners. If you would be so kind as to leave us a five star review, that would be great.
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[00:46:50] Until next week, get outside. Stay curious, and embrace the strange.